Earlier this week a pastor was being interviewed by a student who was intrigued by the pastor’s ministerial authenticity and perspective. Throughout the interview the student expressed a disdain and disgust towards the traditional, dominant (mainstream) ministerial expressions/productions and was somewhat taken aback by the pastor’s affirmation of her disgust and disdain. To add to the enchanting exchange, the student expressed a desire to visit the pastor’s house of worship, at least in part, because (although she didn’t currently attend worship regularly anywhere as a byproduct of her disgust and disdain) she wanted her “at risk” son to have an encounter and relationship with God. “Ironic” would be a blasphemous understatement. Strangely, this is the same relationship that she presumed was accessible through traditional methods (i.e. Sunday worship in a Christian context) but yet had not been persuaded to seek this same God out for herself through the same means (at least not in the last decade or so, to her recollection).
The tenor of her inquiry was more so one of parental control and even pious conceit on behalf of one who took the liberty and privilege to abort the traditional access route to divine encounter but still affirmed it enough to use it as a means of advancing her own desires. This theological transaction is consistent with what my mother would call, “trying to have your [Christological] cake and eat it too!” And I want to suggest that this awkward and ironic moment is descriptive of the murky matrix of contemporary ministry.
In this age of post-modernity and religious reformation, we are now thrust into a system of both spiritual skepticism and religious refuge. This inspirational irony is where a new “Theology of Convenience” has been injected in the veins of most people who would dare to still claim that there is a God somewhere that is in relationship with human beings. Gone are the days of religious absolutism or doctrinal dogma as the dominant platforms of faith. There has been far too many developments in theological study as well as political reality for the church to continue to do “business as usual.” It’s sacred suicide to think that the people the Church is called to serve will forever be blind sheep and indefinitely ignore the critical questions people have about church ministry and church methodology. The “emergent church”, as some have labeled it, or the new contemporary ministerial reality, is one of anything but..... (wait for it)..... CERTAINTY!
I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with a faith that exists in the midst of oscillation. In fact, I would suggest, certainty is the enemy of faith and a hermeneutic of suspicion is a theologian’s (or person of faith’s) best friend. Nevertheless, some of our skepticism, in-deed, is a byproduct of the bed we have been making ourselves to sleep in for the past few decades.
We have longed for a religious reality TV faith that superstar like spiritual leaders have provided through books, radio and television programs. We like microwave solutions to humanity’s crockpot problems. These technological expressions of eternal enlightenment intrigue us to the point of consumption; even as we recognize what we are watching is a train wreck that has the black church and its constituents residing in the conductor’s caboose of the train as it is headed towards the collision. (PREACHERS OF L.A. ANYBODY?).
I have heretofore refrained from commentating on this show because a) there are enough perspectives being offered in response to it and b) most of the responses are opportunistic and/or hypo-anti-critical so I said I would wait until the entire “buzz” died down (which sadly still has not). Nevertheless, my fortuitous take on the show is the same as my take on the current condition of people who seek to honor and claim relationship with a loving and liberating God but yet feel that this relationship comes through a cross-less Christ and a death-less resurrection. We have become both vicarious and voyeuristic! Most of us have seen the presumed “progress and advancement” of the people that have acquired material prosperity through their “faith.” It looks appealing. We want to be like and live vicariously through “them.” Even if this means to worship in a way that is inconsistent with our socio-political and religious reality (pun intended) we are willing to ignore our experience for social and spiritual affirmation. On the other hand we are voyeuristically “getting off” on the craziness and calamity of it all. We want to use other people’s seemingly unethical methods of personal “improvement” as justification for our disdain and distrust of the ministerial system that we support directly or indirectly.
Therefore, 21st Century ministry is currently compiled of ecclesiastical entertainment, divine drama and dogma, traditional strongholds, the reality of human hope and despair, as well as a thirst for theological truth grounded in social justice...but very little personal responsibility!!! In response, we are currently entertaining ourselves into irrelevance and death all the while creating and supporting conditions that make this entertainment detrimental and desirous at the same damn time!
Part of what goes unchecked is that perspective and platform that the student interviewer lifted up while standing on in the interview. The student presumed that she could critique the church for its lack of relevance and authoritative power to speak to her experience but also use it to forward her parental desire of childrearing, all the while not feeling compelled to change the culture and system of ministerial methodology. This is classic apathy! It takes a peculiar type of ministerial leader to provide a platform of oppression in the name of a liberating Lord and Savior. Yet, it also takes a particularly passive type of “person of faith” to support the religious and oppressive buffoonery in the name of “godliness.”
We have legitimately critiqued our religious institutions. But yet, at our core it seems we have not abandoned the faith. As a public theologian I think that this is not only a good thing, but I also think it’s nearly impossible to abandon faith once one has had a divine encounter. We have just created a condition that requires more ministerial and clergymatic creativity for a liberating and divine encounter to be more probable. I have often said that creativity is the church’s defibrillator that is needed to bring ministry out of the coma of complacency, conformity and cowardice that has sacrificed our people on the offer of irrelevance for far too long. My prayer is that we can foster a climate that grounds our ministerial and theological expressions in ways that are consistent with our experience and communal needs for love and justice. I believe a partnership between critical and analytical thinkers, artists, academics, activists and “everyday people” can redefine what it means to be “Church” today. In doing so, we can corner the ministerial market and stop producing and promoting the things that are often times the most regressive and damning in our communities.
But in the meantime, as we are watching what we watch, wearing what we wear and worshiping who and how we worship..... Be careful what you pray for...and who you prey on.
Rev. Earle J. Fisher